Ningali Lawford-Wolf, Indigenous Australian Actress, Dies

Ningali Lawford-Wolf, an Indigenous Australian actress who brought the world of her people to the stage and, most notably, to the screen in the film “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” died on Aug. 11 in Edinburgh, where she was touring with the Sydney Theater Company. She was believed to be 52.

Her death, from complications of an asthma attack, was confirmed by her partner, Joe Edgar, with whom she lived in Broome, a town on Australia’s northwest coast.

Ms. Lawford-Wolf spent more than two decades playing Indigenous roles, enlightening audiences about the experience of Aboriginal Australians.

“What people saw in her,” Mr. Edgar said, “was a real, genuine personality that was not pretentious.”

Ms. Lawford-Wolf originally trained as a dancer with the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theater and later performed with the Bangarra Dance Theater, both in Sydney. Her stage breakthrough came in 1994 with a critically praised one-woman show, “Ningali,” which portrayed through dance, song and satire her struggle to maintain her identity as an Aboriginal woman in mainstream Australia.

Ms. Lawford-Wolf said she wanted to challenge white people’s generalizations about Aboriginal Australians. “I am sick and tired of people categorizing us,” she told The Age of Melbourne in 1995. “I’m sick and tired of people just talking.”

“That’s why I’m doing this,” she added, “because I was one of those people — talk, talk and no action.”

Ms. Lawford-Wolf was born in the remote community of Wangkatjungka in Western Australia, probably in 1967 but possibly in 1968. (Mr. Edgar said there was no official record of her birth.) She spoke three languages — Gooniyandi, Walmajarri and Wangkatjungka — but little English until she was 11.

Her father, who worked on a cattle farm, had been forcibly removed from his own parents as a child under a national policy designed to assimilate Aboriginal children, known as the “stolen generations.” He reinforced to his own children that in order to educate white Australians, they would have to become adept at navigating deftly between the Indigenous and white realms.

“If you want to say something in anger they won’t listen to you,” Ms. Lawford-Wolf said in an interview with The Observer of London in 1995. “So you’ve got to learn to be diplomatic, to learn to change it all around, to do it in their little syrupy way.”

“I think,” she added, “I’ve managed to perfect that.”

At 13, Ms. Lawford-Wolf left for boarding school in Perth on a government scholarship. Soon after, she applied to go to the United States on an exchange program.

She was hoping to move to Hollywood, but at 17 she was instead posted to Anchorage, where, despite the fact that her first languages had no words for ice, she found similarities between her own experience and those of Native Americans.

“Their struggle in America made me realize our struggle more. Made me notice my culture, my language, my people more, and our fight for recognition,” Ms. Lawford-Wolf told The Canberra Times in 1995.
Livia Albeck-Ripka


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